Leap of Faith

Vincent dug his metal talons into the rock and leaned out into space, his fingers stretched to reach into the narrow crevice he'd spotted from the ledge above. He quickly realized that he was still several inches short of his goal, and he dropped back. His body pressed against the cliff face, he shifted the sole of his boot to another outcropping higher up, a thin brow of stone that he hoped would support him. He flattened his gloved palm against the nearly vertical wall and lifted his body to drive the metal claw into a thin fissure higher up.

Pressing his cheek tightly against the rock, he stretched his fingers above his head once again as the wind whipped the tangled strands of his hair across his face. Blindly, he trailed his hand over the rim, but felt nothing. He slid his hand further across the edge, testing the limits of his claw-hold as he reached. He almost smiled when his fingers finally touched the smooth, curved object that jutted from the loose sediment within. He slipped the tip of a finger beneath the barrel and levered it out of the soil so that he could hook his fingers around it. Then he carefully drew the Peacemaker into the light of day.

Vincent relaxed against the cliff and let the barrel drop loosely through his hand, until he could get a finger inside the trigger guard. At that point, he spun the pistol to seat the grip firmly in his palm and eased it into the holster at his waist, thumbing the leather thong over the hammer to secure it.

His favorite pistol safely recovered, Vincent looked back down the course of his ascent to the game trail below. His painstaking climb up the nearly smooth wall had taken almost half an hour, although the distance was only about 25 feet. Between the time he'd spent exploring the terrain and that in recovering the revolver, he'd left her alone too long. He simply didn't want to expend the time required to descend. Cautiously, he leaned in and freed the metal digits from the narrow cleft. Drawing in a slow breath, he glanced down once more and steadied his thoughts. Although he knew his biologically reengineered body capable of such a feat, his wholly human mind tended to rebel when on the verge of actually doing it, one reason he hadn't explored even a fraction of what he speculated his physical potential to be. Of course, the fact that Hojo had forced the genetic alterations upon him didn't exactly compel him to embrace his preternatural abilities.

On the other hand, Hojo had manipulated the variables within the hastily improvised experiment without a clear hypothesis as to the final results, and in the subsequent months following the completion of his diabolic protocol, had been astonished and disturbed at a few of Vincent's emergent traits. In particular, the Turk's tendency to spontaneously transform into a monstrous entity when driven to rage left the vengeful scientist impressed with his own intellectual prowess, but highly insecure. Vincent suspected that this was one reason that Professor Hojo had eventually placed him inside the coffin, his active mind imprisoned within a chemical-induced stasis.

The resident memories of the nightmare world he'd endured for nearly three decades fueled the darkness that always lurked within his brain. The heartbreak and fear, the rage and shame, the soul-crushing guilt, the hollow ache within him to capture the ever-elusive atonement for his sins, all of it threatened to breach his carefully constructed barricade and overwhelm him. Abruptly, he shoved hard against the mountainside, throwing his lithe body sideways into thin air to let gravity take him down. Seconds later, he landed lightly on his feet, his legs easily absorbing the shock of the impact against the ground.

Vincent straightened to his full height and turned his face into the chilly wind as he stared at the ominous clouds overhead. His nostrils flared as he drew in a long breath, the sharp scent of ozone coming with it. A low rumble of thunder touched his ears, a sound so distant that anyone else would not have heard it, but a reason to make haste nonetheless. Whether Tifa Lockheart could travel or not, he had to get her off the mountain as soon as possible, one way or another. The only other option would be to locate some sort of temporary shelter, and he’d seen no sign of any likely place along the mountain face. He shook his head. Any further thought on the subject would be pointless. The time had come for action.

Vincent sprang into fluid motion, his long legs easily devouring ground as he sprinted along the barely perceptible trail, his booted feet moving soundlessly against the wide ledge that hugged the curve of the mountainside. His thoughts traveling a wholly divergent path, he reversed his original route, absently leaping over the remains of a shattered boulder and agilely vaulting the gap left by a wide, jagged crack in the stone underfoot. Within moments, he’d reached the spot where he’d climbed up earlier. He stood at the edge and swept a cursory glance below. Then he jumped. His boots landed noisily in the loose scree that fanned out from the rock face and formed a relatively gentle slope to the wide shelf below. Pebbles spewed from beneath the hard soles of his boots as he slid sideways, digging his metal claws into the loose soil and gravel to give him balance and slow his descent. Eventually, he reached solid rock and shoved himself upright. Idly, he brushed the dust from his trousers as he turned to face the last few feet that stood between himself and Tifa Lockheart.

He could not see the shelf where he’d left her from where he stood. Although, she lay a mere seven yards from his location, she was hidden from view behind the curve of a bulge in the mountain face. A descending ledge, generally a foot wide in most places, provided the only means of egress, the path only an eyebrow of rock that jutted from the otherwise featureless cliff between them, with several breaks along the way. However, the narrow shelf actually provided sound support compared to some of the tenuous holds he’d placed his feet this day, sound support for him anyway. For an injured girl…that was another matter entirely, and one he would have to deal with shortly, for there was absolutely no other way to get her off that ledge and down the mountain without traversing this tricky and dangerous path. But first things first. He had to get back to her.

Vincent stretched a leg across the wide gap and set his foot carefully on the narrow slab. Then he pushed off with his other foot and gained the ledge, immediately flattening his body against the wall as he closed his fingers on the first viable hold. Once his position was secure, he moved out, mostly feeling his way along as he meticulously stored the details of the route for his impending return trip with her in tow. He was counting on her strength and willpower to offset her injuries and enable her to descend with him. He didn’t know if she could do it, but he would find out soon, either way.

Tifa stirred as her senses began to awaken, first noticing that her whole body ached from the harsh cold that seeped into her bones from the ground beneath her. Next, her mouth awakened to the taste of blood and dirt, and she swallowed convulsively, only to wince at the sudden pain that erupted from her dry throat at the effort. The relentless wind tugged at her hair and clothing, stirring dust and tangy air around her nostrils. Slowly, she cracked her eyes open to stare blankly at the red bundle that rested against the soil inches from her nose, bloodstained fingertips barely peeping from the cumbersome cloth. Tentatively, she moved her hand and gasped at the wildfire that raced through her palm and up her arm, sharply awakening the nerves along its path and leaving those behind singing with raw pain.

Drawing her injured hand against her stomach, she gulped in air through her open mouth, her breath ragged as her throat jerked spasmodically against the intrusion. Tears burned in her eyes as she fought to bring her breathing under control and turn her focus to anything else. After what seemed an eternity, the keen pain finally eased, and she carefully pushed herself up, holding her bandaged hand tightly against her body to keep from jarring it. Her movements awakened pain in several other places, but nothing to rival that in her hand. Nothing she couldn’t ignore.

She stared curiously at the red cloak that enveloped her, and then swept her gaze outward to search for its owner. Her throat closed painfully when she realized immediately that he wasn’t there. The ledge was very nearly bare, except for the low brush cover along the edge, and extended out only a few feet before it gave way to the vastly empty sky. Where could he have gone?

Anxiety teasing the edge of her mind, she drew her legs up and pressed her hand against the cold rock wall alongside. Tentatively, she rose to her feet, leaning into the cliff for support when her legs trembled weakly at the sudden demand she’d placed on them. A dull knife sawed across her left kneecap as she unfolded her body and straightened to a full stand.

She chewed her lip as she lifted her hand away from the cold rock and put all her weight on her rubbery legs. The injured knee threatened to buckle beneath her, and she quickly shifted her weight to the other side, her concentration focused on remaining upright. After a moment, she hesitantly slid her left foot forward, pulling her fingers away from the wall as she brought the other foot alongside. The knee throbbed but held firm this time. Quickly, she shifted her weight back to the right and the pain faded to a dull ache. A small smile tugged at her lips. She could do this.

With great care, she limped the few feet that it took to reach the edge, feeling more confident with each successive step. She paused at the rim of a breathtaking vista of the valley far below and drew in a long breath. Now she had to find out if she could get down from here. Heights did not frighten her. She had practically lived in the Nibel Mountains, knew every trail, explored every hidden cavern and clambered all over the twisted terrain. However, she had always known the way down. It was not the height that had her heart pounding in her throat now. It was the thought of finding out that she would be stuck here on this sparse shelf of cold rock to die. Alone. Where did you go, Valentine?

The image of Vincent sitting on the very edge of this ledge earlier exploded full-blown into her mind. It didn’t seem possible that he could have fallen. The man’s physical agility inspired wonder at times. Still, he may have become injured somehow and…fallen. A heavy ball of lead formed in Tifa’s stomach at the thought. Uneasily, she drew the cloak tightly around her and cautiously leaned out to peer over the edge. Too late, she realized her mistake. She swayed unsteadily as the sharp delineation between the firm ground beneath her boots and the roiling sky beyond seemed to swirl into one featureless mass. The rock beneath her feet capriciously tilted as her head spun dizzily. She squeezed her eyes closed to block out the fathomless sky as she felt herself teeter on the brink of a black abyss. Desperately, she tried to propel herself back to recover her equilibrium, but her foot slipped off the edge into thin air. She threw her arms out as she toppled across that invisible boundary where balance is lost and there's nowhere to go but down. It seemed Fate had decreed that she would die this way, and obviously she had no say in the matter. This time she wouldn’t open her eyes.

Despite her resolve, her eyelids did fly open when she was suddenly yanked backwards and snatched from the victorious clutches of gravity to fall hard against the tall, unyielding form of her savior. Immediately, she started to sag to the ground as her legs buckled beneath her, but he released the death grip he had on the back of the cloak to wrap an arm around her waist. Effortlessly, he lifted her off her feet and spun away from the edge. With a couple of long strides, he reached the cliff wall and unceremoniously deposited her into the soft earth where she’d slept earlier. Nervously, she shot a quick glance at his face, and her mind froze at the odd look within his eyes. She looked down and tried to sort out her muddled thoughts, figure out what she should do or say, but before she could decide whether that was anger that lurked there, or something else, he rose to his feet. Without a word, he turned his back on her and took a step away. She stared at him from beneath her eyelashes and watched the wind ravage his hair as she waited for him to speak. Shortly, she realized that he had nothing to say, so she dragged the cloak around her and slumped wearily against the wall.

Vincent closed his eyes and struggled to rein in his emotions as he waited for his racing heart to slow. He had nearly choked when the ledge had finally emerged into view, and he’d seen her teetering at the edge. He couldn’t remember touching ground when he jumped the last few feet and threw out his hand for her. She was falling even as he reached, and he’d known that he hadn’t made it in time, but the cloak had suddenly billowed out in the wind as she’d thrown her arms out, the heavy cloth sailing right into his fingers. Darkness encroached at the thought of how near he’d come to having to bear the weight of her death on his conscience. He’d been a fool to leave her, and he vowed not to make that mistake again.

Tifa returned her eyes to Vincent’s still form and decided that he must be angry with her. For a moment she thought about apologizing, but she immediately crushed out that idea. She didn’t have anything to be sorry for, except maybe her clumsiness. A shudder ran through her body at how close she had come to finishing what Fate had started the night before. If Vincent hadn’t returned from…wherever he’d been…at just that moment… She realized that she probably should thank him…again, and she opened her mouth to do just that, but the words stuck in her throat. Instead, she pressed her hand against the adjacent rock face and climbed cautiously to her feet. Immediately, the whole ledge seemed to tilt, and she squeezed her eyes closed and unconsciously turned her broken nails into the stone as she waited for the dizziness to pass. At her movement, Vincent turned to watch her as she battled to recover her balance.

“How do you feel?”

Her eyes jumped open at the sound of Vincent’s inflectionless voice. She looked up to meet his crimson gaze, unblinking in cool indifference. Whatever she thought she’d seen in his expression earlier was gone now. She’d probably imagined it anyway in her distressed and confused state. In answer to his query, she wanted to tell him that her hand throbbed relentlessly, that her legs had turned to rubber and her head into a gyro, that she felt as weak and spastic as a newborn kitten and just as hungry, and that she wanted to collapse into the soft earth beneath her and sleep for about a year. But she didn’t.

“I’m fine.” She responded tersely, shyly averting her eyes at the realization that she’d been staring at him. She had to admit that the sight of his completely uncovered face still fascinated her.

“We must leave.” He informed her. “A rainstorm is moving in.”

Startled, Tifa returned her gaze to his blank face. She didn’t need anyone to tell her how dangerous this ledge would be in a storm, and she didn’t doubt Vincent’s dire prediction for one second. The heavy cloud cover above her provided ample evidence. However, a quick glance around her gave her no clue as to where he planned to go.

“How are we going to get down?” She repeated the question she’d asked him earlier. And please don’t tell me that I have to trust you. She pleaded silently.

“I’ve found a trail of sorts.” He answered her.

“Really?” Surprised, she slowly scanned the area again, and then brought her eyes back to his face.

“W…where is it?”

She watched curiously as Vincent spun away and strode to the far end of the narrow shelf. He turned to look back at her and slightly inclined his head toward the mountain face beyond. She stared at him for a moment as he folded his arms over his chest and shifted his weight to one foot. Obviously, he meant for her to join him.

Slowly, she straightened and lifted her hand away from the wall that supported her. She focused her eyes on the ground as she stood and waited for the dizziness to overcome her again. Either her head had adjusted to her vertical position or the vertigo would prove to be intermittent. For whatever reason, she felt much steadier. She brought her eyes to bear on Vincent’s expressionless face only to collide with his resolute gaze. She sighed. She might as well get started. She suspected he would wait there for her until the mountain face eventually eroded away beneath the brunt of centuries of wind and weather.

Wincing at the sharp twinge from her lacerated knee, she moved her left foot forward and cautiously placed her weight on that leg. A dull throb arose, but the pain was bearable. What’s more, although her leg was stiff, it didn’t feel as though it would slip away beneath her this time. She moved her right foot out and settled her weight quickly to that side as her left knee abruptly protested her action. Another surreptitious glance from under her eyebrows found Mr. Valentine virtually unmoved, still waiting and watching, thick strands of inky hair blowing across half his face, one crimson eye cast in shadow.

She pursed her lips as she took another limping step, but stopped when she moved from the partial shelter of the mountainside into a blast of chilly wind. She turned her face into the deep collar and took another slow step. The hem of the heavy cloak suddenly whipped against her ankles, and she stumbled sideways.

Vincent almost moved from his position to go to her, but stayed his ground as he saw her regain her balance and straighten again. Her brow furrowed in deep concentration, she reached around and gathered the cloak with her unwrapped hand. Then she draped the thick cloth over her arm so that the wind would not catch it again and took another step in his direction. Truthfully, he wanted to jump to her side and take her elbow, help her cross the uneven ground, but he knew that she had to do it alone. If she could not walk the few feet to where he stood, she didn’t have a chance of getting down the mountain the way he planned. She had to do it. He didn’t want to dwell on the alternative means of descent if she did not succeed. That was an issue he refused to confront until such time as the situation forced him to do so.

Tifa paused as her left knee trembled slightly and pulled her attention from her worn boots to shoot another glance in Vincent’s direction. He hadn’t moved a single inch. The tall, black-clad figure stood frozen in place, starkly silhouetted against the overcast sky beyond, arms still crossed with those wickedly sharp metal digits curled around his right elbow, and those dead, blood red eyes still closely watching her. A shiver abruptly danced up her spine, and she dropped her eyes from his to hide a sudden feeling of anxiety. He had always intimidated her, not only because of his appearance, but also because of his emotionless demeanor. Still, his close proximity hadn’t bothered her too much before, but then she’d never been alone with him before either. There had always been other members of the team around. Now she was suddenly and completely aware of how very dangerous Valentine appeared; in fact, how dangerous he could be. She lifted her foot to take another step toward him as she silently voiced her thanks to all appropriate deities that the ex-Turk was on her side.

On the other hand, maybe old Valentine should be thanking his lucky stars that she was on his side. She could be dangerous too. A rueful smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. She just didn’t feel very dangerous right now, and she didn’t have any illusions that she intimidated him at all. One had to have feelings in order to be afraid.

She’d been slowly progressing across the ledge as her thoughts meandered, one careful step after another, her eyes locked on the movement of her feet. She had been so engrossed in contemplation that she physically started when the gold-capped, pointed toed boots suddenly intruded into her field of vision, just a few inches beyond her own. She straightened her back and tilted her face upwards to meet his cool gaze. Nervously, she slid her foot backwards to put some space between them, but he abruptly turned away, and Tifa dropped her eyes to the ground, unconsciously twisting a fistful of the red cloak in her hand.

“There is another ledge beyond that protrusion.”

She lifted her chin at Vincent’s quiet words and peered in the direction that he was looking. Her eyes widened when she noticed the narrow, broken ridge of stone that girded the bulge in the mountain face, rising like a dilapidated staircase in some places and like a quake damaged sidewalk in others, with chunks of rock missing along the way.

“From there, we can easily climb up to a game trail that may lead us down the mountain.” Vincent turned back to find her staring speechlessly at their only means of escape. He fell silent and waited for her response.

Tifa let her eyes travel the projected pathway until it disappeared around the curve in the rock. She knew that under normal circumstances she could successfully negotiate the treacherous ledge, but she only had the use of one stiff hand and a couple of wobbly legs. The thought of attempting to cross in her current condition made her blood run cold. Still, she knew there was no other option than to stay here and die of dehydration…unless Vincent would transform, although the thought of being held in the claws of that creature again didn’t appeal to her much either. Still, it would be quicker.

“Why don’t we fly down?” She suggested tensely, her wide-eyed stare still focused on the perilous terrain.

“No.” Vincent flatly responded.

Tifa swung her stare to his tranquil face.

“Why not?” She asked curiously.

Vincent remained silent for so long that she didn’t think he intended to answer. Abruptly, he turned away to stare at the distant range that bordered the valley floor and folded his arms.

“It is too dangerous.” He finally answered, his voice as inflectionless as before.

“But you…transformed before.” She reminded him hesitantly.

Again the silence stretched between them for long seconds before he replied.

“That was different.”

“How?” She shot back at him, weary of his taciturn ways.

This time he responded immediately as he turned to face her, pinning her with his crimson gaze.

“You were already dead.”

She opened her mouth to reply, but the weight of his emotionless statement rendered her voiceless. Of course, he was right. She had become a dead woman the moment she fell from the Highwind. When he’d transformed, there had been nothing to lose. Even if the creature that he called Chaos had ripped her to pieces in the end…well…she’d been dead anyway. A shiver ran through her body as she released the cloak and unconsciously let her fingers slip beneath the hem of her cropped shirt to trail across her stomach as the memory of claws tearing her flesh flowed darkly through her mind. She narrowed her eyes slightly at the twinge of pain when her fingers encountered the first shallow gouge. Gingerly, she traced the four long claw marks, bitter bile rising in her throat at what might have been. Still, the creature hadn’t meant to harm her. She was sure of it. In fact, Chaos seemed…dismayed…that he’d failed her.

“Shall we go?” Vincent prompted.

Startled, Tifa jerked her eyes to his watchful gaze, and her face flamed as she dropped her hand to her side, but he didn’t show any sign that he’d noticed her examination of the injuries that his alternate form had caused. He merely waited for her response, always still, always expressionless. In fact, he was getting monotonous. She nearly smiled at the thought until she let her gaze scan the cliff again, then her brow furrowed as she frowned, tension coiling in the pit of her stomach.

“I…I don’t…t…think…I can…” She spoke hesitantly, her voice trailing weakly away as she stared at the broken ledge and watched an illusionary, but vivid image of herself topple over the edge and fall, hands flailing futilely at the air around. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed and swallowed past the lump in her throat as the memory of her fall from the Highwind completely possessed her thoughts. She struggled to draw in air past a stranglehold of fear while she tried to pull her mind back from that dark maelstrom of frigid wind and deafening noise and certain death.

Vincent still silently watched her as she now fought for mental equilibrium, her tumultuous emotions blatantly displayed in her wrinkled brow, her trembling lip, and her tightly pinched face. He shifted his weight uneasily and turned his eyes away from her to blindly study the striations and tiny fissures of the stone beneath his boots. The darkness slithered just beyond the edge of his thoughts, and he tried to pull away, to lock the door, but the memory wouldn’t be denied.

Her tormented face filled his sight, wet with tears and twisted with pain. Her lips quivered as she stretched a hand to him from where she lay sprawled across a tread worn carpet of faded roses, her thick tresses of honey colored hair framing her pale cheeks. Even as he’d fallen to his knees, her translucent lids slipped partially closed as the light faded from her anxious green eyes, and she’d slumped into unconsciousness, her hand dropping limply into the soft folds of her robe. Lucrecia…

Bitter regret sank bloodstained claws into his heart, and the ever-present well of madness yawned wide to swallow him whole. For a bare moment, he knew that he teetered on the edge. How easy it would be to let go. Impatiently, he shook his head in an effort to dispel the image of that moment when he thought she’d died, the event that had finally shaken him from his complacency to confront Hojo in an attempt to take Lucrecia’s baby from him. He had utterly failed her, and the man he’d been had ceased to exist that day. A wry smile touched Vincent’s lips at the thought. No great loss. He’d been a monster then, and he remained one now. Hojo had merely stripped away the civil veneer to reveal him honestly.

“V…Vin…cent?” Startled from his dark reverie at the sound of Tifa’s weak voice, Vincent jerked his eyes up to collide with her anxious stare. Feeling off balance, he shuttered his eyes behind half closed lids and forced his mind back to the matter at hand. Deliberately, he schooled his face into its customary mask and turned his cool attention to her tensely drawn face.

“Are you ready?” He finally asked when she didn’t speak further.

Tifa opened her mouth to answer him, but her voice froze in her throat. She knew she had to do it. There was no other option. Yet, the thought of setting foot on that narrow brow of brittle rock terrified her, and she couldn’t seem to force the thread of hysteria from her mind with her well-honed mental discipline. All of it escaped her at the moment. She truly believed that if she actually managed to force words from her tongue that they would emerge as gibberish. Disgusted at her own weakness, she let her eyes slide away from his.

“I will not let you fall.” Vincent’s toneless words brought her stricken gaze to bear on his face again. Though his eyes seemed as chilly as ever, Tifa sensed a strange intensity within that held her raptly locked into his unblinking stare.

“W…what…d…did you say?” She stammered.

She started when Vincent took a step towards her, but she could not tear her eyes from his.

“I will not let you fall.” He repeated in the same flat tone as before. “You have my word.”

Tifa unconsciously nodded. Despite the fact that she had absolutely no reason to think that he had the ability to keep her from tumbling off the mountain, she believed him. Wholeheartedly, unreservedly believed him.

“Okay.” She agreed, her voice barely above a whisper.

He turned away from her and easily jumped across the small space between the ledges, one wide and safe, the other narrow and precarious. He leaned into the rough cliff side and pressed his cheek against the stone. Then he reached his hand out to her and waited.

She stared at the proffered hand as though it were a whip snake ready to sink poisonous fangs into her palm. Then she lifted her injured hand against her stomach, the cloak that was still draped over her arm now trapped beneath, and slowly stepped to the edge. She locked her eyes on his to keep her gaze from straying to her feet and laid her fingers against his gloved palm. He immediately closed his hand tightly around hers. She took a breath and without taking her eyes from his face, jumped the narrow gap to his side.

Vincent released her as she leaned in and laid her fingers against the cold stone. Gingerly, she drew her injured hand from between her body and the wall to hold her arm stiffly at her side.

Vincent slid a step away from her, the hard sole of his boot scraping against the windswept surface as he felt his way along, his steady gaze still locked on her tense face. He moved another step away from her and paused, waiting for her to follow. She stared back at him as she worked up the courage to make a move. Finally, she slid her foot sideways, grimacing as her injured knee brushed against the craggy stone. Ignoring the sharp sting, she brought her other foot alongside. Then she moved over another step as Vincent slid away from her.

A sense of relief came over her. This wasn’t so bad. The ledge turned out to be wider and certainly more stable than it had appeared, and the blunt force of the icy wind didn’t touch them here. She could do this.

Slowly, but steadily she followed Vincent along the ledge. His watchful red eyes made her uneasy, so she lowered her gaze to his chin to stave off a pervasive compulsion to look down at her feet. She knew that would be a mistake; an invitation for her dizziness to return full force. A chill tickled the length of her spine at the thought again of how close she’d come to falling just a few minutes ago, would have fallen if Vincent hadn’t returned in time.

“Step up here.” At his instruction, she swept her eyes across his intent gaze and away. She nodded, and Vincent climbed up onto the higher outcropping and moved aside to wait. She eyed the distance nervously. The difference in height was just a couple of feet with a narrow gap of space between the two levels, but she hesitated at the thought of trusting all of her weight to her injured knee.

Still, she didn’t want to hold up the show any longer. Slowly, she lifted her foot to the ledge above, chewing the inside of her lip as the thinly sealed gash broke open when she crooked her knee. She ignored the warm rivulet of blood that trailed across her shin and shifted her weight to lift herself up, but she discovered that without the leverage of her other hand she just couldn’t do it. She moved to try again, but Vincent abruptly bent and grabbed her upper arm. He hauled her up beside him as though she weighed nothing, and held her in place until she had steadied her position. Then he let go and moved off. Without a word, she followed.

Slowly, they traversed the ledge without mishap, moving step by step in what almost seemed a sort of dance, or maybe a children’s game. Do what I do and you won’t die. Don’t do as I do and hope you can fly. A tenuous smile tipped the corners of her mouth at her own silliness. The height must be making her giddy. At least her fear seemed to ebb with each rift she stepped across and each incline she successfully navigated as she shadowed his footsteps, absent gaze still locked on his pale chin. She could feel his vigilant eyes on her own face as he observed her progress, no doubt ready to swoop in if her resolve should crumble into ash, but that wasn’t going to happen now. She had this thing licked, as long as she didn’t look down.

Her attention was so focused on where she planted her feet that she didn’t realize that they had finally rounded the bulge in the mountain face, their goal a mere six feet away, until a blast of wind ripped across the face of the cliff and tore her long, tangled hair and bulky cloak away from her body. She tried to dig her fingers into the unyielding stone as the strong gale, cloak caught firmly in its teeth, tugged her inexorably away from the cliff.

Panic welled up inside her as she felt herself tipping backwards, and she instinctively grabbed at the wall with her bandaged hand, an uncontrolled action that resulted in searing pain when her ravaged palm slammed against the hard surface. A cry of agony escaped her lips, the tortured sound stolen away by the contrary wind.

A feeling of bleak futility overwhelmed her as the intense pain sapped her will, and she watched the mountain face draw away despite her struggle to hold on. She shut her eyes to the sight, but opened them wide again when Vincent closed his fingers painfully around her upper arm and shoved her forward into the wall. Just in time, she turned her head so that her cheek took the brunt of the impact rather than her nose, and her eyes shot to his face. The wind whipped his long ebony locks around his head so that she could see only one eye, a crimson orb burning from his pale face, devoid of any discernable emotion as always.

She stood completely still, frozen in place as she trembled in reaction to another near fall, her cheek and hand plastered against the stone, her anxious stare locked into Vincent’s calm regard. The wind still tore at her clothes and body, but Vincent’s hand on her arm held her firmly in place. What held him in place, she had no clue. Maybe Yuffie’s conviction that the man could only be a vampire was not as ridiculous as she believed. She nearly snorted at that thought. More likely he had those fearfully sharp claws embedded securely into the cliff. However he was keeping himself on the ledge, she hoped that he didn’t succumb to the force of the gale.

Deliberately, she drew her wayward thoughts back to the situation at hand. Although butterflies still fluttered inside her stomach, she realized that she felt steady enough to continue and wanted nothing more than to be off this ledge. As though he had read her thoughts, he nodded once and slid his foot sideways along the surface of the shelf, drawing her along behind, his fingers still wrapped around her arm.

Again, she closed her mind to everything but the movement of her feet and just followed, her cheek scraping painfully across the unrelenting rock as she felt her way along with splayed fingers and thickly soled boots. She ignored the insistent tug of the wind against her body and the icy chill that numbed her bare limbs. Fighting an insistent compulsion to look away from her companion’s face to see how far they’d come, she focused her thoughts instead on the insistent throb that had taken up residence in her right hand as she vehemently willed the ordeal to end.

Although only minutes had passed since they’d set foot on this infernal ledge, she felt as though she spent the better part of an hour treading the edge of oblivion. In fact, time seemed to move so stubbornly slow that she was actually surprised when Vincent finally stopped, only a few feet beyond the point of her near fall. He released her, and she bit down on her lip to hold her protest at bay as she fought back the unreasonable panic that threatened to sweep over her at his abandonment.

“We must jump across here.” He informed her. Her eyelids fell at his words, an unsuccessful attempt to shut out his meaning as well as his watchful gaze.

“Are you ready?” he asked bluntly after a moment passed without any response from her.

Gods no, she wasn’t ready. She would never be ready. She nodded her head.

Without another word, he nimbly vaulted the wide rift to land on the capacious ledge beyond, turning back to offer his hand. She stared at it, knowing she would have to sidle at least three steps along the wall, and then lean out just to reach him. The only time she could remember feeling more isolated was when she’d been alone in the Lifestream. Almost unconsciously, she moved to the edge and stretched her arm out to drop her hand into his palm, immediately clamping her fingers around his hand in a viselike grip. Then she turned her eyes downward to gauge her jump.

“No.” Vincent spoke sharply. Her eyes darted back to his face. “Don’t look down. Just jump.”

She nodded again. Then she closed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath as she started a mental countdown. On three, she blindly jumped, depending on Vincent to guide her. If she missed, she didn’t want to see. A second later, her legs buckled beneath her when her boots hit ground, and she fell forward onto the scree-covered ledge, her tight hold on Vincent’s hand torn loose. She threw her liberated hand out to catch her fall, but the sharp-edged rocks viciously bit into her knees as she skidded. A meaningful curse rose to her lips at the sting, but she refused to voice it aloud. This mountain was starting to really get under her skin. With an irritated huff, she shoved herself up and turned to find Vincent standing immobile, arms folded, his face lifted to stare up the long slope of scree before them.

She drew the cloak around her again and let her eyes travel upwards to pause on the smooth palisade that emerged from the slope high above and shook her head.

“Is that where we're going?” She queried incredulously.


She studied the terrain intently. “…And there's a trail up there?” She questioned further.


“…And the trail will take us down the mountain?” She pressed.


She turned to stare at him, her eyebrows drawing together in a frown at his inadequate answer.

“Maybe?!” She exclaimed.

He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug. “Perhaps.”

Her eyes narrowed on him as annoyance grew inside her. She did not find the uncooperative tenor of his responses amusing.

“Well, what if it doesn’t?” She snapped.

Vincent sighed and dropped his arms to his side. “Only an exploration of the trail will determine its ultimate terminus.” He blandly pointed out. “We are merely wasting time here. A commodity we have little of at present. Shall we go, Miss Lockheart?”

He swept his hand toward the fan-shaped slope of loose rock and sediment, an obvious indication that he intended for her to climb first. She studied his still face a moment longer as she tried to come up with an argument, but words escaped her. He raised one dark eyebrow in question and waited silently for her compliance.

“Can you manage the climb?” He asked quietly.

She clamped her mouth shut in a tight line and spun away from him. Her movements abrupt with irritation, she flipped the cloak back over her shoulders and tossed her wild, tangled mop of hair down her back. Without another glance in Valentine’s direction, she started into the climb, keeping her balance with her left hand against the slope and holding the bandaged one tightly against her stomach. The gash on her knee began seeping blood again at her movements, but she disregarded the warm trickle down her leg, just as she took no notice of him when she heard his boots crunch into the rocks behind her.

Tifa scrambled upwards, making headway despite a tendency for the friable soil to scoot away beneath her boots. She dug her fingertips in and kept climbing. The ascent turned out to be easier than she had thought, and within moments she rose to face the smooth sandstone cliff that blocked further progress. Even that didn’t look as fearsome now that she stood before it, the crest of the vertical wall only about a foot above her head. If not for her injured hand, she could easily pull herself up and swing her body over. She lifted her bandaged hand and studied the lacerated fingers, pondering how much it would hurt for how long if she did use it. Gods knew she’d endured worse pain before today.

“I’ll lift you.” Vincent spoke beside her.

Startled, her head snapped around to find him there, his arms folded and eyes again focused on her in still appraisal. Or course, she knew he had followed her up the slope, but she hadn’t heard him come up beside her. She was unreasonably irritated that he’d surprised her, and she stared at him in stony silence until he lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“…If you wish…” He added carefully as he noted her curious expression.

Tifa looked away and gave her head a slight shake. What was wrong with her? She felt…almost angry…with him, and she had no reason to be. He’d saved her life, more than once, and now only wanted to help her get off this forsaken mountain, and they still had a long way to go. Heavens knew he could be long gone already if not for her. She glanced back to find him waiting patiently, his face void of any censure or irritation, as serenely expressionless as ever.

Shamefaced, she dropped her gaze to the ground and nodded her assent. “Sure…okay.”

She stepped close to the rock, glancing around as he dropped his arms and moved behind her. Tension built inside her as she laid her hand atop the ledge and stiffly waited. Without a word of warning, Vincent closed a hand and a claw about her waist and smoothly lifted her high enough for her to get a leg over and lever herself up. Her bandaged hand carefully held to her chest, she untangled her legs from the cloak and rolled clumsily to her feet. She then turned to watch him climb up, only to discover that he already stood beside her in the trail, his face lifted into the wind, attention pointedly focused on the trail that wound away from them.

“What’s the matter?” Tifa asked softly.

Vincent ignored her as he sought to define whatever it was that had touched his senses and danced away, leaving him uneasy in its wake. Had it been a nearly imperceptible sound or a wisp of a scent carried on a breath of wind? If so, he could sense neither now. Still, his tension did not ebb. Although there seemed to be nothing threatening around, his well-honed instincts told him something lurked nearby.

“What is it?” Tifa asked again, her voice a bit louder than before, fingers of tension stiffening her spine at his intent stance. Obviously, something had disturbed him, and she wanted to know what.

Vincent suddenly spun in the trail to face her, and Tifa nearly cried out when her heart slammed into her sternum at his sudden movement. Hand pressed to her chest, Tifa glared at him as he peered down the trail beyond her. Still he didn’t speak.

“Well?” She asked pointedly as she propped her hand on her hip.

”Nothing.” Vincent finally replied. “Let’s go.”

Tifa stood motionless, totally unsatisfied with his answer. She didn’t think he was being truthful and wanted to pursue it further, but he lifted his arm and pointed one golden digit to the path behind her.

“That way.” Although he spoke quietly, there was an edge beneath his bland tone that suggested he wouldn’t be open to any discussion. She suddenly remembered the storm he’d mentioned, and the thought occurred to her that maybe he didn’t think there was time to talk.

She drew the cloak around her despite the chilly wind’s relentless efforts to snatch it away and turned to move in the direction Vincent indicated. Her eyes roved over the terrain as she followed the thin trail. She was very relieved to see that the path extended well ahead, meandering across the soil-covered surface of the wide shelf that hugged the shoulder of the mountain, both trail and ledge disappearing into the distance. She wondered what sort of wildlife traveled this way. Thinking of the unsavory creatures that haunted the Nibel Mountains back home, she hoped they didn’t encounter anything dangerous. Completely unfamiliar with this mountain range, she had no idea what lived here, and she really didn’t feel up to fighting, even if they only encountered a pesky Zemzelett or a couple of Suferoths this high up.

Vincent drew the Peacemaker from his holster as he watched Tifa limp away from him, carefully picking her way along the barely perceptible path as she fought the ever-present wind for possession of his cloak. Confirming that she was well on her way, Vincent lowered his eyes to the weapon and turned it in hand and claw as he examined it carefully. Just as he’d expected, the pistol would have to be cleaned of the sandy grit that had become embedded in every part of it. He lifted the gun to eyelevel and blew the loose soil from the cylinder and ejector. He noticed that the hammer seemed slightly off center, and he tried to thumb it back only to find it tightly jammed, obviously damaged as it ricocheted against one rocky surface or another in its descent. With a sigh, he dropped the weapon back into the holster and secured it. When he had a chance, he would have to dismantle and clean the Peacemaker, and attempt to repair the damaged part. He glanced up to gauge Tifa’s progress as he reached for the small pistol in his shoulder holster. Despite her cautious pace, she had put some distance between them.

Quickly, he ejected the clip and checked the load. A scant look told him it was still nearly full. With a loud click, he slammed the clip home and set off after Tifa, his long strides easily covering the ground between them until he fell silently into step behind her, slowing his pace to match hers.

As he followed, he tuned his senses outward, again searching for the source of his uneasiness, the gun clasped loosely at his side. Despite extensive scrutiny of his surroundings, he could detect nothing that posed a threat. He only heard the sigh of the wind against the mountainside and the scuffle of Tifa’s boots as she limped along. Nothing moved but for the scant plant growth around them, spindly limbs and brown leaves astir. Not even a bird crossed the dark, laden sky above. Reluctantly, Vincent returned the pistol to its holster and turned his full attention to the route. For now, he would just have to stay alert.

In the lead, Tifa clambered over the shattered remains of a fallen boulder and returned to the sketchy trail on the other side. Then she negotiated a long curve around the mountain face and came up short as the ground dropped away before her, the end of the line. She turned around to locate Vincent only to find him peering over the side several yards away. Curiously, she watched him as she cautiously flexed her stiff knee and waited. To her surprise, he suddenly jumped off the edge without a word to her and disappeared. Exasperated, she moved toward the edge, but froze in her tracks when his dark head suddenly reappeared, the crimson eyes zeroing in on her own.

“This way.” He informed her before he disappeared again.

As quickly as she could, she pushed her way through a clump of prickly brush and paused in the spot where he’d jumped. The ground dropped away precipitously to merge with a long slope that hugged the mountain until it vanished into a stand of weathered trees far below where it then reappeared even further below, following a switchback course that traveled downwards as far as she could see. She could just barely make out the game trail where it picked up again a scant five feet below her. Vincent waited for her several paces down the slope, his attention turned elsewhere.

Although he obviously seemed to be fixated on some mysterious thing once again, she decided that it would be a waste of time to ask him what it was that was bugging him. He didn’t seem inclined to carry on conversation, and she figured that he would speak if he thought it important, true to his nature. Besides, she wanted to get down off the ledge and back on the trail. The terrain below looked much easier to travel, and she was ready to get on with it. With that in mind, she took a breath and jumped just as Vincent had done, flexing her knees to take the brunt of the impact as her boots landed squarely in the soft earth. She nearly cried out at the acute stab of pain that speared through her palm at the sudden jar, and her knee nearly folded beneath her, but she quickly shifted her weight to her uninjured leg to keep her balance. As she straightened, the horizon abruptly tilted, and she stood in place to wait until her head stopped spinning. She would have to be more careful. She’d been feeling pretty steady and had taken herself for granted. She wouldn’t want to make that mistake on the edge of a precipice.

Her head finally settled down and she looked up to find Vincent watching her closely from where he stood a short distance away. She sensed his unspoken question and responded. “I’m fine. Just a bit dizzy.”

He nodded and turned back to the trail. “We need to go.”

“Why?” Tifa asked as she moved to join him. “Is something the matter?”

Before he could answer her, if he was even going to, a low rumble came to her ears, and she lifted her face to the sky. It seemed the predicted storm was moving in, and they still had a ways to go.

“Oh, the storm…” Tifa remarked absently. “That’s what’s been bothering you?”


Tifa fell into step beside him as he set off down slope, peering curiously up into his quiet face.

“Then what?” She pressed.

As usual, silence stretched for several long seconds before he answered her. She fully expected him to answer with his typical “nothing”, but he surprised her.

“I’m…not sure.” He responded slowly as he glanced around them. “I can’t put my finger on it.”

“On what?” She asked tensely, her eyes wide as she looked around. She could easily see that there was nothing around them but rock and dirt and a few scraggly trees. She brought her question filled gaze back to his face.

When he didn’t immediately answer her, she impatiently grabbed his wrist and brought him to a halt. Vincent turned his gaze down to stare at her fingers that were tightly clasped on his arm, the long ebony hair falling forward to shadow his face.

“What is the matter?” She demanded tensely. “Just tell me.”

Vincent continued to stare at her hand, and she grew uncomfortable at his stillness. Finally, she released him, and he turned away.

“Phantoms stalk the shadows, by nature invisible and silent.” He finally spoke as he moved off.

“What?!” Tifa exclaimed, completely clueless as to the purpose, if any, of his cryptic remark. Aggravated, she limped after him, hurrying as fast as she could to catch up to his long strides. He slowed his pace as she came alongside and opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, but he spoke first.

“Just keep your eyes open.”

She clamped her mouth shut at his blunt order, her brow furrowed in a frown. She thought of a few impertinent things she’d like to say to him, but settled for glaring up at him instead. Unfortunately, her energy was wasted. He paid her no mind as he walked along with his steady gaze focused forward and his gloved hand resting on the holster at his side. Obviously, the discussion was over.

With a weary sigh, Tifa dismissed the recalcitrant Valentine and swept wishful eyes across the sky. If only the Highwind were there. Then she’d know everyone was safe, and maybe she could be rescued from this ordeal. She shot a glance at her companion’s stony profile. Well, she and Vincent. Although, she really didn’t think it mattered to him one way or another. How sad it must be not to care about anything or anyone. A soft smile tugged at her lips as Cloud’s face filled her mind, blue eyes luminous with Mako and intense with emotion. Then she remembered when she’d seen his face like that. Unwanted tears pricked behind her eyelids as the image of Aeris came, the Cetra girl’s face a mirror of Cloud’s, eyes bright with happiness and love. If only once, Cloud had looked at her like that. Tifa swept a surreptitious hand across her eyes and bowed her head, letting her long bangs fall forward to hide her face. Maybe not caring would be better.

After awhile, Tifa lost track of her surroundings as she absently watched the ground pass under her boots. Her thoughts wandered on their own accord, flowing through whatever whimsical door opened within her mind, scenes from the last few weeks replaying with different endings where she willed them. Her thoughts became her reality and reality a backdrop. Vaguely, she heard the rumble of the thunder grow louder as time passed, an echo of the grumble in her empty stomach. Her mouth had grown cottony from thirst, and her injured hand throbbed relentlessly. Although, she hadn’t paid him any notice in quite some time, she half-sensed Vincent walking ahead of her on the trail, the distance growing between them as she fell back. She decided that none of that really mattered, her eyelids drooping tiredly as time ceased to have any hold in her surreal mental world.

She didn’t know how long she’d been unconsciously plodding down the trail when a tiny flash of light somewhere to her right captured her attention. She stopped and peered down into the brush, taking a backward step as she sought whatever it was she’d glimpsed. She didn’t see anything, so she bent lower, lightly closing her eyes when her dizziness briefly returned. The moment she opened her eyes again, the object sprang into view, nestled in the center of a tuft of broom-like grass. She carefully reached in and lifted it closer, turning her hand so that it was cradled in her palm. At first inspection, the object seemed to be nothing but an oblong stone with smoothed edges, ivory with spidery veins of blue shot through, but if she turned it slightly, the color within changed to gold, then red, then green, like a holographic image where the pictures change when you view it from a different angle. Fascinated, she rolled the stone around in her hand, closely watching the shifting kaleidoscope of color and light move through the hard substance. She had never seen anything like it and had no clue how it could have been formed, but the stone was beautiful.

Tifa blinked when a drop of moisture suddenly appeared on the rock in her hand. She stared in awe for a moment before another drop hit her wrist. A low rumble of thunder rolled behind the heavy cloud cover, and she turned her face to the sky. A few more drops touched her nose and cheeks. She lowered her eyes to find Vincent a hundred feet down the mountain, nearly in position to negotiate another switchback in the trail. She’d been dawdling around a lot longer than she’d realized. Slipping her hand beneath the cloak, she dropped the small stone into the pocket of her skirt and set out to catch up with him. Apparently, the man hadn’t even noticed that she’d fallen behind, so much for his powers of observation.

Tifa moved as quickly as she could manage, considering that her whole body now ached and her legs remained a bit unsteady. A shudder coursed through her as the random splatters of rain evolved into a light drizzle, cold raindrops falling into her hair and chilling her exposed skin. Her long tangled bangs grew heavy with moisture and fell into her eyes, interfering with her view of the sketchy trail beneath her feet. She tossed her head and instantly regretted the action as the ground swerved beneath her. She froze in her tracks and stared at the scuffed toes of her boots while she waited for things to stop whirling around. This was getting tiresome.

“Are you all right?”

Tifa’s eyes darted up to the pale face of the tall man that stood beside her, expressionless as he waited for her answer. Confused, she shot a look down the mountain where she’d last seen him. Apparently, he’d returned silently up the trail to check on her, or more likely to light a fire under her to get her moving.

“I’m fine.” She snapped, irritation evident in her tone. She tensed her body as another shudder worked up her spine.

Vincent studied her closely despite the fact that she was returning his perusal with a narrow-eyed glare. Her bright eyes stood out starkly in her chalky face and dark splotches of color marred her cheeks. She looked feverish. He opened his mouth to inquire about her hand, but she had grown tired of his silent appraisal. With a huff, she turned away from him and started down the mountain again. He watched her for a moment, then easily caught up and fell into step beside her.

She frowned slightly when he drew abreast of her, but continued on, ignoring him as she worked hard to stay upright despite a now pervasive lightheadedness.

“What did you find?” Vincent asked, the words low and inflectionless.

“What?” Tifa asked, surprised at his question.

“Back there you picked something up from the ground. What was it?” He elaborated.

Tifa sighed. So the man had noticed her lagging as well as the reason for it. For a moment Tifa thought about showing him the wonderful thing she had found, and she slipped her fingers beneath the heavy cloak to retrieve it, but suddenly decided she didn’t want to. Instead, she clasped both arms around her waist and shrugged.

“Just a rock.” She finally replied.

He didn’t respond, and she glanced up to find his crimson gaze turned on her again.

“What? You don’t believe me?”

He looked away at her irritated question, although she continued to study his face, or what she could see of it through the thick matted strands of his damp, jet-black hair.

“Well?” She prompted.

“I have no reason to doubt your word.” Vincent finally spoke, his bland tone revealing no hidden accusation or sarcasm.

That said, he lengthened his steps and pulled away from her, taking the lead on the trail once more. That antsy feeling from earlier had returned full force, and he wanted to listen. Besides, he’d suddenly grown uncomfortable beneath Tifa’s pointed appraisal of his face. Confirming that she still followed close behind, he turned his attention outward to the terrain around them, stretching his senses to their fullest in an attempt to identify whatever predator stalked them down the mountain; get a bead on it before it attacked, because he had no doubt that eventually it would.

Hours seemed to pass as Tifa trudged along behind the black-clad ex-Turk, who had not spoken another word or so much as looked her way again. The drizzle stopped and started intermittently, and she hoped that the rain would not start in earnest until they were finally down. They moved steadily as they traveled from slope to ridge, passing through sparse groves of wind twisted trees, some completely bare of leaves. The going was easy except for once when they had to scramble over a craggy outcropping that had suddenly appeared in their way, and a couple of times they had to slide off a ledge to another level a few feet below, nothing particularly hazardous or difficult for her under normal circumstances. Things were just a little trickier when your right hand had been set afire, and your head transformed into a slowly spinning top.

Tifa became vaguely aware that she was having more trouble simply walking, wobbling side to side on the trail, stumbling occasionally as the cloak, which hung to her ankles, seemed to be more bothersome than before, tangling around her legs with the whim of the mountain breeze. On the plus side, the air had grown warmer as they’d descended. She turned her head to trace the river that snaked across the valley below, wishing there was a way to get that water up here. How long had it been since she’d had anything to eat or drink. Certainly, before they had headed into the Northern Crater, with the exception of a few sips from a canteen, a canteen that was keeping her bag company on the Highwind, if the ship was still in one piece.

She forced her mind away from that worrisome thought and focused her attention on her traveling companion again. He moved easily along the trail ahead of her, his indefatigable steps almost a glide across the ground. It was annoying to watch him when she struggled harder by the minute to stay upright. She noticed that despite the smoothness and efficiency of his stride, the distance between them had closed. She didn’t think she was moving any faster, so he must have fallen back.

She started as a loud clap of thunder shattered the quiet solitude around them. In the next moment, the rain moved in, a heavy drizzle that crept across the bleak face of the mountain to envelope the two of them in icy dampness. Tifa lifted her chin into the flurry of raindrops and opened her mouth to catch a few, something to dispel the dry scratchiness in her throat.

“I suggest that you not drink the rain water from those clouds.”

Startled at the sound of Vincent’s voice after so long, Tifa brought her head down and glared at the back of his head. He wasn’t even looking at her. She was now convinced that he harbored an extra set of eyes buried beneath all that thick hair. She opened her mouth to retort, but suddenly realized that he was, of course, right. Those clouds were the result of the catastrophe over Midgar. Who knew what the rain might carry? She sighed and pulled the cloak tightly around her body to stave off the cold droplets. The heavy material seemed to soak up the water, keeping the clammy dampness from her skin. Vincent, on the other hand, was not so lucky, since she had his cloak. The rain ran in rivulets from his hair, soaking the back of his shirt and trousers. His heavy locks of inky hair, appearing almost blue-black in the intermittent flashes of diffuse lightning, were soon plastered flat against his head and neck. Something about the way it looked then reminded her of the people that lived in Wutai. She realized that she didn’t know much about Vincent, and she idly wondered where he was from.

“I wonder…are you from Wutai, Valentine?” Tifa nearly choked when she realized she’d asked the question aloud. Her face flushing, she ducked her head and peered at him from beneath her wet bangs.

The silence stretched between them as they walked on. He didn’t even look back at her. She blew out a breath of relief when she realized that he must not have heard her anyway.

“No.” Vincent suddenly spoke, his response abrupt and short as usual.

She wondered if he was annoyed that she’d asked him. She had noticed that he didn’t like to talk about himself much.

“Well…ah…I was just asking because…you know…your…h…hair...er...you kinda...you know...look like...well...you could be from Wutai….” Shut up, Tifa, she admonished herself vehemently. Her face flamed brighter at the knowledge that she sounded like a complete idiot. She must be delirious to have stumbled into this conversation, such that it was.

Vincent was only half listening to Tifa. His attention had been focused on the terrain around them as they walked, but now he sensed that whatever was out there had drawn closer. He was frustrated that he could not pinpoint what it was that had set him on alert. He suspected the rain had become an obstacle, interfering with his ability to detect the exact location of the elusive stalker. He swung his intent gaze from left to right, eyes taking apart every shadow and crevice around him. Then he glanced over his shoulder at Tifa, who still shuffled along behind, her head bowed low.

“My mother was from Wutai.” He absently answered her.

Her eyes jumped to his face, completely astonished that he’d continued the conversation.

“Your MOTHER!?” She exclaimed impulsively.

“I did have one.” He responded flatly to the surprise in her voice. Then he lifted his eyes to the slope beyond her, and spicules of ice speared through his veins.

Tifa’s eyes flew wide when Vincent suddenly spun completely around, his gun in his hand. He jumped toward her and lifted the weapon. With a startled yelp, she threw herself to the ground and tried to scramble away until she heard the sharp bark of the small pistol. At the sound, she buried her face against her arm and squeezed her eyes shut. If she survived this, she would never ask him anything again. She waited for the gun to fire again, but instead heard a vicious snarl and a totally human cry of pain.

She jerked her head up to find Vincent down on the ground, locked in a deadly struggle with a huge, black feline creature that bore a vague resemblance to the big cats they’d battled at the Gaea Cliffs. Pinned under the beast, he had his claw and hand latched around its thick neck as he held the slavering fangs just inches away from his exposed throat. Tifa scrambled clumsily to her feet, fighting the now familiar dizziness as she straightened. She noticed Vincent had let go of the cat with his hand and now frantically searched the ground beside him, his eyes locked on the snarling animal. The cat lunged against his claw hold, and he jerked his hand back to the straining throat. Quickly, she looked around and found the gun, several feet from where he now wrestled with the black cat. He must have lost it when the wild beast sprang. She almost fell again as she dove for the weapon, unable to tear her eyes from the desperate standoff between the two.

She started to pick up the gun, but realized that she wouldn’t be able to shoot the cat without taking a chance of hitting Vincent, even if she could figure out how to use it soon enough. The two ravaged the ground as Vincent fought to throw the cat away from him, but the beast resisted mightily, one huge paw tearing into his shoulder and the other chewing up the ground beside his head. Vincent choked back a cry at the white-hot agony that violently roiled through his shoulder and down his left arm as the thick claws pinned him to the ground. His pounding heart pumped new adrenaline into his system, and he stubbornly resisted the impulse to let go and relieve the strain on the injured limb, even managing to tighten the golden claw despite the intense pain. The cat screamed with rage at the increased pressure of the sharp tips and lunged powerfully against Vincent’s claw-hold. Desperately, he squeezed the cat’s throat with all his strength, but the straining muscles beneath the metal talons were too tight for him to break through the fur pelt, and he couldn’t change his hold without giving the enraged animal the opportunity to rip open his own throat.

Her heart racing, Tifa could see that Vincent was on the verge of losing the contest of human will against brute force. Forgetting her own injuries, she focused her concentration and jumped in, letting her steel plated boot fly in a vicious kick to the cat’s broad head. Her foot connected squarely, but her other leg folded beneath her and she fell sideways, completely missing the result of her assault as she concentrated on landing on any part other than her viciously throbbing hand.

Weak with relief, Vincent shoved the heavy, limp animal off his body and slumped against the ground. His chest heaving, he labored to draw in one whole breath as he turned his head to stare at the dead feline. The sleek head had fallen at an acute angle that suggested that the big cat’s spine had snapped. His gaze shifted to the dark blood that glistened against the black velvety hide, a neat bullet hole in the smooth underbelly apparently the source of the wetness. So he had hit the cat in mid-leap, but the injury hadn’t been sufficient to stop the determined animal. All the blood on his shirt was not his own either. He reached across his chest and let his fingers explore the extent of the deep gashes in his shoulder. Blood welled from the torn flesh, and he bit back a groan when his fingers touched a particularly deep gash, one that probably sank through to bone. He released a slow breath and pulled his hand away. There was simply no point in worrying about it. The wounds would eventually heal, and they still had to get off the mountain.

With that thought in mind, he climbed shakily to his feet and moved slowly across the wet ground to stop beside his gun. He dropped to one knee and picked it up with unsteady fingers. Wincing as he slid it into his shoulder holster, he stood and turned to find Tifa swaying before him, her stunned eyes frozen on the copious amount of blood that dripped brightly from his shredded shoulder and faded darkly into his black shirt as the gentle rain washed it away. She swallowed hard at the sight of the angry wounds visible through the ragged tears in his shirt.

“You’re hurt.” She took a step closer, unconsciously wobbling sideways as the tall man in front of her turned into two and merged again.

“I’m fine.” He responded tersely as he watched her futile attempt to stand straight.

“You are not fine.” She replied stubbornly, another unsteady step bringing her within reach. “Let me look at that.” She stretched her hand up as she spoke, but Vincent abruptly turned away from her.

“I’ll mend.” He flatly stated as he moved slowly down the trail. He felt a bit lightheaded and shook his head to clear it. His shoulder throbbed unmercifully, but he’d endured worse. Turning his senses outward again, he sought any other threat that might be about, but thankfully found nothing. He could hear only rain, smell only rain. The pervasive sense of unease had left him as well. There didn’t seem to be any other predators around. He glanced over his shoulder to find Tifa stumbling valiantly along behind him, and he slowed his step until she came alongside. Her bright-eyed gaze skittered across his face and away. He recognized that the feral brightness came from the fever that burned within her, and he knew that she needed medical care. He also knew that she wasn’t likely to get it anytime soon. If only there were some place to take shelter, he would stop this journey that had become increasingly tortuous for her, and begin again another day. But they would only be exposed to the elements here. Resolutely, he fell into step behind her, shortening his steps to match her slow pace. He glanced at the valley below, easily making out the features of the landscape. They had already descended most of the way and didn’t have far to go. He just hoped she could make it.

Tifa stared hard at the ground beneath her feet, trying to keep the trail from blurring into two and her feet into four. She knew quite well that she had a fever. The chills that racked her body beneath the heavy cloak told her that, and her hot palm, afire with acid beneath the bulky bandana wrap, told her the culprit. Fear twisted in her gut at the possible consequences of an infection out here. Gods, she could lose her hand…or worse. No, she didn’t want to think about that. She also didn't want to think about Vincent who seemed totally oblivious to the fact that his shoulder was ripped all to hell. She pulled her gaze away from her feet to stare down at the valley floor, her focus better when looking into the distance. The view from here was not a lot different from the one she used to soak in from some precarious perch in the Nibel Mountains, mostly flat, mostly green with a shimmering ribbon of river cutting across the plains. The only thing missing was the distant fringe of sandy beach and expanse of ocean that lay far beyond the Nibelheim Gate.

Tifa stumbled, but caught herself before she fell. She stopped and glanced up to find Vincent alongside her again, his still gaze on her face.

“I’m fine.” She answered before he could ask. He probably hadn’t planned to anyway. She shook her head tiredly and set off again, noticing from the corner of her eye that Vincent had fallen into step beside her. Most likely he’d decided to physically place himself between her and the sharp drop-off several feet beyond the edge of the trail, fearful that she’d stumble clumsily around until she managed to fall off. Thankfully, she couldn’t see his left shoulder from this angle.

The silence grew heavy between them as they walked, the minutes fading into an hour or more. Or so it seemed. Tifa just knew that it felt like they’d been walking a very long time, her boots growing wider and heavier. The relentless drizzle had finally soaked her hair and the cloak through, and shivers had taken up permanent residence in her body. If it wasn’t for the fact that she was used to walking long distances, she probably would have dropped already. Their little group had walked everywhere before they’d finally managed to acquire some transportation. However, she usually had someone to talk to when they traveled, except when a stealthy approach was required. Valentine wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Not that he was shy, not like she was. Just that he only spoke when he had something to say, and that wasn’t often. She usually had plenty to say, but just…didn’t. She just didn't know why she was so afraid to express her thoughts. She knew one thing though. She couldn’t take this claustrophobic silence anymore. She was going to talk, even if just to herself.

She took a deep breath and forced out the thing uppermost in her mind. “Do you think they are all right?” She turned her head slightly to glimpse Vincent strolling easily beside her, his eyes straight ahead. He didn’t answer, and she turned her gaze to her feet again.

“I don’t know.” The belated response brought her eyes back to his face, but his expression hadn’t changed. She almost decided that she hadn’t heard the quiet voice at all, only imagined it. She didn’t know what she’d wanted him to say anyway. Of course he couldn’t know any more than she could.

He didn’t meet her gaze, so she turned her eyes down again.

“I hope they’re okay…” She said softly, mostly to herself. Just as well, as he didn’t bother to reply.

She suddenly remembered that Vincent had once said something to her about hope. Something about hope and despair. She hadn’t understood just what he’d meant at the time and had been too shy to ask him, and now she couldn’t recall the words. She sifted through her memory for a moment before she realized that she didn’t care what he’d said then anyway. Obviously, she was getting desperate for things to take her mind off her discomfort. She decided just to talk.

“You know I’m from Nibelheim I guess…that I grew up there?” Tifa didn’t know how much information the distant man had picked up about them during their travels, but she suspected that he didn’t miss much about anything. He was always off in his own space, silent and watchful. He probably knew plenty. However, he didn’t respond so she continued. “…And then...well…I ended up in Midgar somehow…thanks to Zangan…I guess…”

Vincent still showed no inclination to take part in the conversation, continuing to move silently down the trail. It didn’t matter to her. She was just talking to hear a voice, even if it was just her own. She really didn’t care if he joined in or not.

“I never in my wildest dreams expected to end up in a big city like Midgar…ripped away my small-town girl illusions I can tell you.” She thought about living in the slums and finding out how evil people could be. And how the everyday struggle to scrounge up even the basic necessities made many bitter. She had toughened up pretty quickly in the slums, and she’d met some good people too, Barrett who had given her something to keep fighting for, and Jesse, Biggs, and Wedge…gone now…gone but not forgotten…never forgotten. She swiped an errant tear from her cheek with the back of her hand and sighed.

“Yes, winding up in Midgar was certainly a life changing experience…” She whispered under her breath.

Vincent shot a glance at Tifa’s face, taking in her pale, wet face, her hair plastered darkly against her head and cheeks, the blue tinge around her lips. He noted her slumped posture and the effort that she expended in just lifting her feet. He doubted she would be able to go on much further, but he also knew that she would go on until she dropped. Familiar with her quiet nature, he recognized that her one-sided conversation was probably an attempt to keep herself going.

Tifa started when Vincent suddenly spoke. “Hmmm…I grew up in Midgar…and ended up in Nibelheim, a more extended stay than I had planned.” Laughter bubbled up her throat at the statement, but she sobered instantly as the picture of Vincent locked in a crypt in the decrepit Shinra Mansion jumped into her brain. In fact, he’d been there in that musty coffin the whole time she’d been growing up in the sleepy little town. She doubted he’d meant the comment to be amusing. “Why did that seem funny?” She muttered to herself. Apparently, delirium dogged her heels.

“…A life altering experience as well…” He added blandly. Tifa’s eyes widened in surprise. So he had heard her inaudible whisper despite the patter of the rain and the rush of the wind past their ears. Embarrassed, she ducked her hot face into the high collar of the cloak as Vincent continued.

“Thoughts are colored through the filter of one's own perceptions, Miss Lockheart.” Vincent continued in his soft monotone. “If you found my statement amusing, then so be it. If not, then my words were merely an observation of the truth.” Tifa jerked her eyes to his face, and their gazes locked, his disconcerting crimson eyes capturing her brown ones. She moved her mouth to speak, but nothing would come out. Was he annoyed with her? Certainly, his impassive face revealed no answer. She felt once again that she should apologize or something, but he turned his attention away from her before she could figure out exactly how to respond, so she just kept her mouth shut.

His words had set her mind in motion though, and she suddenly felt compelled to ask about the years he’d been locked away. She wondered if he remembered anything about it and what it was like for him to wake up all these decades later to find that the world had gone on, but she stifled the impulse to ask. She really didn’t want to annoy him with questions about things he probably didn’t care to recall.

Instead, Tifa fell silent and stared hard at the trail beneath her feet, the ground still determined to shift away. She gave her head a sharp jerk to chase away the persistent muzziness, but the dizzy sensation only worsened. Then, without warning, her knees folded beneath her, and she would have fallen but for the hand that yanked her up by the elbow. Vincent dragged her against his side and steered her toward a nearby clump of wind shattered trees as she stumbled along beside him. She tried to push away from him, to stand upright, but she just couldn’t find the strength.

She weakly protested when he let her slide to the ground at the base of one of the trees and as soon as he turned away, she pushed her hand against the rough bark to lift herself.

“No. Rest.” Tifa sagged back against the bent trunk at Vincent’s hard tone. She tilted her head at an acute angle to look up and find his glittering eyes narrowed on her face. Now he did look irritated.

“V…V…Vin…cent…” Tifa stammered out between chattering teeth. “I…I…can g…go…on.”

He shook his head and spun away. “I’m going to look for a way down.” Tifa raised her blurry eyes to find that the trail they’d been following back and forth had now come to an abrupt end. Just a few steps beyond them, solid ground gave way to a dim, misty chasm. She watched Vincent as he scanned the area around them. “There do not seem to be any predators about. You will be safe.”

She nodded her head weakly, but he had already turned away to walk to the edge. She let her head fall back against the tree trunk as she watched him lean out and peer downwards. Weariness seeped through her body and her eyelids drooped. She shook her head and forced them back open only to find Vincent gone.

Suddenly, the shadowy bulk of the mountain behind her seem to grow menacing, the sky darker, the rain drearier. She huddled her body tightly against the trunk, as though to make herself part of the gray bark, to not feel like such an interloper here, to not feel so…alone. Carefully, she drew one knee up and propped her wet cheek there, pushing the clinging clumps of hair out of her face with numb fingers. She tucked her bandaged hand tightly against her chest and tried to draw her mind away from the fact that her entire right hand and arm now burned constantly beneath the damp cloak. She locked her eyes on the spot where Vincent had disappeared to watch for his return. He’d only been gone a moment, but it had already been too long.

Slowly, her focus turned inwards as the minutes crawled by, and her thoughts evolved into flotsam caught in an easy current. Inevitably, her mind drifted to the enigmatic man that had left her alone in the company of a twisted bunch of pathetic trees, and she idly examined the few things that she knew about him. She knew that he preferred his own company. From the time he’d joined Avalanche, he always removed himself to the periphery of their group. He remained to himself on the Highwind, off the main deck. Also, he tended to fade into the shadows when they camped and usually fell back when they traveled through the countryside on foot.

His stance was always distant too. Back to them, arms crossed, head down. Seemingly cold and indifferent to everyone around him, he rarely took part in any conversation and never in any horseplay. Certainly, no one knew much about him except the little bit he’d chosen to reveal about his past. He had been a Turk. He had loved a woman named Lucrecia who had been pregnant, and Hojo and Gast had used her and her unborn child as human experiments in the Jenova Project. That child had been Sephiroth, and he’d grown up and gone mad and nearly destroyed the planet. Vincent blamed himself for not stopping it all back then, and for letting Lucrecia go through it.

He’d said all that when they’d found him sleeping in a coffin, inside a locked crypt, where he’d been for nearly three decades, and he hadn’t said much about it since. He’d made it clear that the only reason he’d left the coffin had been to avenge Lucrecia, to find Hojo and kill him, and to stop Sephiroth. Of course, she only knew all that because Aeris had told her. She hadn’t been with them when they’d discovered Vincent.

She could still remember clearly the first time she’d ever seen the strange man. She had been watching the entrance to the Shinra Mansion while Cloud, Aeris and Red had gone inside. Barrett had corralled Cait Sith and towed him off to watch the Town Square because they didn’t trust the townspeople at all. They were all phony and so was the town, rebuilt as though it had never burned, strangers acting like they’d always lived there, and those gibbering black-cloaked creatures everywhere. She had been pondering over the motivation behind the whole thing and thinking about the events from five years before too, worrying about Cloud and all the things that didn’t match up with him, and she’d been thinking about the relationship between Cloud and Aeris, fretting at their growing closeness.

It seemed like she’d been out there for hours, leaning against the weathered stone wall of the house, when the front door finally creaked open, and Red emerged, followed by Aeris and Cloud. She stood away from the wall and started to ask them what they’d found, but they turned back to the door and paused, as though waiting for something to happen. Speechlessly, she’d swung her gaze toward the door just in time to see pale fingertips grasp the edge of the doorframe from inside. Curiously, Tifa took a step forward and glanced appraisingly at her companions. Aeris smiled and lifted her hand toward the front door in a beckoning gesture. Cloud just watched warily, his arms crossed and feet planted wide apart.

Then he stepped out onto the stoop, his eyes blinking in the subdued sunlight of late afternoon. Tifa took in the tall frame, the blood-red cloak, the wicked metal-tipped boots, and the long thick black hair. She tried to catch Cloud’s eyes, but his whole attention was focused on the strangely garbed man.

Suddenly, he spun toward her as though he’d just realized that she stood there. She caught her breath sharply and instinctively stepped back. Though the high collar and wide headband hid most of the pale face, his burning eyes were as blood red as his cloak, and he had a metal claw for a left hand, gold, articulated talons curved into gleaming points. Automatically, her hands had clenched into tight fists. His appearance was so…threatening. She’d glared at him as his eyes had moved to her fists and back to her face. Then he'd turned away.

“Let’s go.” Cloud said.

Tifa jumped back to the present when she realized she’d heard the voice in her ears as well as her mind. She raised her head to find Vincent standing in front of her.

“Are you ready?”

Tifa nodded and grabbed the tree trunk to pull herself up. Vincent offered his hand, but she ignored him, and he let his hand fall to his side and waited. After several long moments, she successfully stood and pushed herself away from the broken bark to stand unsteadily before him.

“D…d…did you f…find a way d…down?” She stammered out. She clamped her teeth together to still her chattering jaw, but gave up when her face began to ache.

Vincent moved away from her to walk to the drop-off. Then he shook his head. “We will jump.” He remarked idly as he waited for her to shamble to his side.

“J…Jump?” She asked as she came to the edge beside him. She dropped her gaze below, to a place where the cliff gave way to a wide plateau, a likely place to jump to. However, the gentle ground below looked to be about 20 feet, give or take a few.

She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them to look again. The distance seemed about the same.

“How f…far is th…that?” She asked anxiously.

“Twenty-five feet.” Vincent answered her succinctly.

Tifa started to back away. “Oh no, w…we can’t j…jump that f…far.” She whispered.

Vincent followed her back and reached out to take her wrist, staying her backward motion. She twisted weakly against his hold, but had lost any will to make a real effort to break free. Instead, she lifted fearful eyes to his.

“I can.” He informed her, holding her gaze. She slowly shook her head, her eyes locked on his face.

“No…” She whispered.

Vincent stared at her for several moments as she stood shaking in his light grip. He knew he could jump that distance easily. Jumping with her was another matter entirely. He’d never jumped with someone else. He didn’t know for sure that he could accomplish the feat successfully with the added weight, but he believed he probably could. At any rate, there was no choice. The calculated risk was one they would have to take. They couldn’t stay here.

He drew in a slow breath, and released her wrist. She didn’t drop her gaze from his.

“Trust me.” His words were steady and firm, reflecting a confidence that she wanted to believe in.

Numbly, she nodded in agreement, wanting to turn and run instead. Woodenly, she moved forward, her heart pounding in her chest and hopelessness seeping into her brain. This was what it felt like to face an execution. She’d been there too, after all. She’d survived by her own wits and a little luck, but now she had to place all her faith in someone else, no control over her fate at all, but in the end what did she really have to lose?

She stopped in front of him and closed her eyes, stiffening her legs in a pointless attempt to still her trembling knees.

“Just do it.” She bit out sharply between clenched teeth.

Although she expected it, she yelped with surprise when Vincent swept her up into his arms without preamble. He tightened his hold around her, and she buried her face against the clammy black cloth of his shirt as he sprang into motion. She wanted to scream when he launched himself from the edge of the cliff, but her tightly closed throat bottled up all sound down inside until she thought it would literally explode from her chest.

Although the seconds seemed interminable, they hit before she was ready. At the hard jolt of their landing, she tumbled from his arms and rolled head over heels into a heap a few feet down the gentle slope. Curling her body instinctively around the agony that seared her hand beneath the red bandana, she gulped in air as she fought the compulsion to just bawl her head off. Soft blades of grass tickled her cheek and lips with each spasmodic breath as she denied her tears an outlet. Inexplicably, the need to wail suddenly abated beneath a tidal wave of inopportune laughter that welled inside her instead, and she sputtered as she suppressed the spate of giggles that threatened to break free.

Vincent’s legs had folded beneath the brunt of impact, and he’d let her go as his knees hit the ground. He raised his eyes to where she’d come to rest a few feet beyond him, and his chest tightened when he realized her body shook with sobs. He’d rarely seen her cry despite terrible injuries in the past, and he didn’t want to think about what had brought her to this state. Quickly, he scrambled over to her and leaned across her body to see her face.

Shock reverberated through his brain when she turned her tear-stained face to him and laughter erupted unhindered from her mouth. He sat back on his heels and stared into the overly bright eyes that danced in her pallid face as her musical giggles filled the air around him. She looked up into his eyes and tried to talk once she managed to rein in her levity somewhat.

“T…t…hat wasn’t s…such…a good...l…landing…” She choked out between giggles.

Tifa laughed harder as she watched Vincent’s dark brows draw together in consternation just before he jerked his face away and rose to his feet.

He stood stiffly with his back to her, crossing his arms over his chest as he waited for her to regain control of herself. She couldn’t see the tiny smile that twitched at the corners of his mouth.

After some time, Tifa’s loud laughter resolved into sporadic chuckles, then into an occasional giggle between gasps for breath. Finally, Vincent deemed it safe to address her, and he turned around, hooded eyes peering coolly down at her. She just grinned up at him, her arms wrapped tightly around her aching stomach.

“We are down.” He pointed out, glancing out toward the verdant field of rain-wet grass that carpeted the rolling terrain as far as the eye could see

Tifa clutched her hotly throbbing hand to her and struggled to sit up, although hopelessly entangled in the cumbersome cloak. Finally, she dragged the heavy material from around her legs and pushed herself upright. She gaped out at the gentle slope that flowed into the wide grasslands below, eyes wide with awe.

“Oh…we are…” She said in amazement.

Vincent offered her his hand, and she absently took it, letting him pull her to her feet as she tilted her head back to stare in disbelief at the mountain behind them. The cliff they’d just jumped from seemed impossibly high from here. On cue, the mountain swooped sideways, and she staggered backwards against Vincent, nearly going down when her foot encountered his boot.

With a shake of his head, he set her back on her feet and took her elbow in a secure grip.

“Come on, let’s go.” He started down the slope, his support the only thing keeping her walking as he towed her along beside him through the wet grass.

“W…where are w…we…going n…now…?” She chattered as the pervasive chill shook her body. Frustrated, she ground her teeth together to keep her jaw from clacking, a fruitless effort.

“This way.” Vincent answered shortly as he followed the curve of the mountain face. Tifa stumbled alongside him, each step requiring a monumental effort to keep her legs from sliding away beneath her.

They hadn’t gone far when the dark skies suddenly opened up and released a deluge of fat raindrops on their uncovered heads.

“J…j…just g…g…great…” Tifa shivered as she bent her head low against the cold rainfall. They were both soaked through to the skin within seconds. Vincent squinted at the mountainside, blinking against the moisture that dripped from his eyelashes. He estimated that they still had a little over a mile to go. No great distance but an arduous trek in the blinding downpour.

Tifa’s feet had turned to concrete, her legs to rubber, and her head to swirling air. The silver curtain of rain hung all around her like a funeral shroud. Occasionally, she strained to see through the watery barricade as the rain pelted her relentlessly, inevitably letting her head wearily droop again in surrender. At some point, she gazed around her in confusion and realized she had no idea where she was or how she came to be here. All she knew was that shudders racked her whole body and this idiot kept dragging her along when all she wanted to do was lay down and sleep. She didn’t want to walk another step. A bright spark of rebellion flared in her disoriented mind, and she abruptly jerked away from her heartless captor, who stopped in his tracks and turned to see her collapse obliviously to the ground at his feet.

Vincent knelt beside her on one knee and turned her onto her back, bringing her nose and mouth up out of the shallow puddle she’d fallen in. He drew the long wet bangs out of her face and touched her forehead with his fingertips. Although her skin was cold and clammy to the touch, heat burned beneath the sheen of moisture as fever raged through her chilled body.

“Tifa!” He gave her shoulder a hard shake, but she didn’t respond. Carefully, he bent and gathered her against him, then climbed unsteadily to his feet. Rotating slowly in place, he stared into the dense rainfall to reorient himself again. Finally, he located the dim mass of the mountain to his right and set off into the miserable deluge, head bent against the icy pellets of water that pattered maddeningly against every part of him.

The better part of an hour passed as he slogged through the soft, mushy ground, often staggering as he held his back straight to balance the dead weight of Tifa’s body. His shoulder, though partially healed already, throbbed miserably at the strain on the damaged muscles. Although his physical resources sometimes seemed inexhaustible, he knew he had nearly used the last of them. His body ached with fatigue, and he found himself stumbling more often, but he wasn’t about to stop now. He knew he had to be close, unless he’d totally missed it in the nearly opaque fall of rain.

A few steps further, his boot sank into a muddy sough, effectively bringing him down on one knee. Tiredly, he resettled Tifa higher in his arms and worked his foot free from the cloying suction of the waterlogged soil, then pushed himself up to stand on unsteady legs. Not sure he could manage another step just yet, he bent his head and peered down into Tifa’s ashen face as the suffocating, wind-driven rain sheeted down without any sign of surcease. Vincent forced his reluctant feet into motion, knowing full well that only shelter could help her now. He had to find it quickly, while he still could. Despite the poor visibility, he kept the immense bulk of the mountain on his right, his vigilant eyes tracing the nearly obliterated terrain as he splashed sluggishly across the swamped ground.

Vincent considered turning back to retrace his path, more sure as time passed that he’d missed the opening in the rain. Either that or he had completely miscalculated their location from the beginning. His determination flagged at that thought, and might have abandoned him to stand hopelessly in the rain if he hadn’t finally detected a blur of shadow behind the shimmering curtain of moisture. He stared hard at that faint vacuum of light and took a tentative step toward it. Then he took a few more, each one a bit faster than the last. The dark blur solidified into a hollow in the hillside, and a burst of energy surged through his bloodstream when the shrouded stone walls that bracketed the cave entrance suddenly emerged into view.

Now galvanized into motion, he fairly glided across the ground as the nearness of his goal fueled a second wind. He passed between the tall barrier walls, out of the gale at last, and paused just outside the rock-hewn portal. His brow wrinkled in puzzlement as he peered into the stygian darkness inside the cave. Where were the constantly burning flames that always bathed the walls with warm light? Absent too were the soft snores that typically emanated from within. He didn’t like it when things were not as he expected, not one little bit, and he itched to have a gun in hand. However, that would mean putting her down on the cold, rain-washed ground and he didn’t want to do that.

Truthfully, there was no point in hesitating any longer. He couldn’t sense any imminent danger, and he decided that the annoyance of the ceaseless cascade of water carried more weight than his vague feeling of unease. He swept a quick glance across Tifa’s slack face and brought his eyes back to the entrance.

“Well Miss Lockheart, shall we see if The Sleeping Man is home?” He muttered softly to his unconscious burden.

Then he stepped cautiously into the cold, dank cave.

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